Saturday, May 3, 2014

Impossible to Succeed - Seymour's Brigade, May 5th 1864

Timothy O'Sullivan's photograph taken on May 4th shows the Army of the Potomac crossing the Rapdian at Germanna Ford from a ridge on the south side of the river. It was perhaps from this same vantage point that Colonel Keifer spoke with Major McElwain on the morning of May 5th.
Soldiers! The eyes of the whole country are looking with anxious hope to the blow you are about to strike in the most sacred cause that ever called men to arms.
- Circular published by Maj. Gen. George Gordon Meade, May 4, 1864

Colonel Joseph Warren Keifer rose early on May 5th, 1864. He and the soldiers of the 110th Ohio had slept without tents on the heights overlooking Germanna Ford. The uncomfortable sleeping arrangements mattered little. The third division of the Sixth Corps had covered 18 miles the day before, marching in the heat of a Virginia May. Several had come down with sunstroke; all were exhausted when their march concluded on the south bank of the Rapidan River. As the sun rose on May 5th, Keifer stood on a ridge overlooking the Rapidan crossing. The warmth of the early light gave warning that another hot day was in store.[1]

Joseph Warren Keifer
Before the war the twenty-eight year-old Colonel practiced law in Springfield, Ohio, where he was a staunch Republican. With little more than militia experience, Keifer rushed to volunteer in April of 1861, and received a commission as Major of the 3rd Ohio Volunteers. He saw action in George McClellan's West Virginia campaign of 1861, and rose to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel before receiving command of the 110th Ohio in September of 1862. The previous fall he had commanded his brigade at the Battle of Locust Grove, during the Mine Run campaign.[2]  

As Keifer gazed down upon the pontoon bridges floating in the river, his Major, William S. McElwain, approached. In a quiet, troubled tone, McElwain warned his commanding officer that, "unless I was more prudent than usual I would never recross [the river]," Keifer later recalled. As Keifer and McElwain reflected on the likelihood of impending combat, their soldiers brewed coffee and ate their breakfast. The third division had orders to defend the crossing site until the arrival of Ambrose Burnside's 9th Corps. A bit before 9 a.m., the troops got a glimpse of  Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant and his cavalcade of staff as it clattered by. "He was on a fine, though small, black horse, which he set well," Keifer remembered. He 
was plainly dressed, looked the picture of health, and bore no evidence of anxiety about him. His plain hat and clothes were in marked contrast with a somewhat gaily dressed and equipped staff. He saluted, spoke pleasantly, but did not check his horse from a rather rapid gait.
Grant's gait reflected an anxiety that his demeanor did not show. The commanding general had received word earlier that morning from Maj. Gen. George Gordon Meade that rebels had appeared in force west of Wilderness Tavern. Intending to await Burnside's arrival at Germanna Ford before moving to the front, Grant's patience had run thin, and he left written instructions for Burnside before breaking up his headquarters at the ford and moving to the front. As he departed, the commanding general ordered third division commander James B. Ricketts to push forward to Wilderness Tavern as soon as Burnside's lead elements crossed the river.[3]

Truman Seymour
While Grant passed on to investigate the opening salvos in the Wilderness, within the third division officers and soldiers alike attempted to sort out new command relationships. The division had been a part of the Sixth Corps for little more than a month. It had served under its new commander, Maj. Gen. James B. Ricketts, for even less time. And as they rested on the ridge above the Rapidan, the second brigade, which included Keifer's 110th Ohio, marked the arrival of a new commander, Brig. Gen. Truman Seymour. A career soldier and a graduate of the superb West Point Class of 1846, Seymour was not necessarily a stranger to the Army of the Potomac. He had commanded troops in combat as a brigade commander in the 5th Corps during the Seven Days, and had even led a division at Malvern Hill. He saw further action at 2nd Manassas, South Mountain (where his brigade captured Turner's Gap), and at Antietam. Passed up for permanent division command in the Army of the Potomac in the Fall of 1862, Seymour requested a transfer. He moved to Charleston, where he famously commanded the assault (led by the 54th Massachusetts) on Battery Wagner on July 18th, 1863. He was wounded in this attack, but recovered and in February 1864 found himself in command of Union forces at the Battle of Olustee in Florida, a disastrous defeat that tarnished his reputation. Seymour arrived to take command of the second brigade early on the morning of May 5th. The men of the 110th, 122nd, 126th Ohio, 6th Maryland, and 138th Pennsylvania would march into the Wilderness in a new corps, with a new division commander, and with a brigade commander whose association with his troops measured only hours.[4]

Shortly after Grant departed the scene, General Burnside arrived at the head of his corps, and General Ricketts began to put his troops on the Germanna Plank Road. The column had barely started when a courier arrived from Meade's headquarters bearing conflicting orders - Ricketts men were to picket the roads to the west of Germanna Ford, protecting the army's right flank. The campaign was just twenty-four hours old, and the Army of the Potomac's complicated command arrangements were already causing confusion. Ricketts possessed an order from Grant to march and an order from Meade to stay put. He halted his his troops, positioned them to protect the crossing site, and sought clarification from Army Headquarters. Finally, at about 1:30 in the afternoon Burnside's troops relieved Ricketts, and the division got started again on the Germanna Plank Road for a five mile march to the front. Up ahead, the soldiers could hear the reverberating sounds of combat as the 5th Corps engaged with the Army of Northern Virginia along the Orange Turnpike in Saunders Field.[5]

As the division arrived within supporting distance of those troops already engaged in the late afternoon, its two brigades were split up. Brig. Gen. William H. Morris's first brigade received orders to support the 5th Corps south of the Orange Turnpike, and a courier from 6th Corps commander John Sedgwick directed Seymour's command to report to Brig. Gen. Horatio Wright, whose division held the right of the Federal line north of the turnpike. Seymour's men turned onto the Culpeper Mine Road, marched to the extreme right of the Army of the Potomac, and formed into two lines of battle. Keifer's 110th Ohio and Colonel John  W. Horn's 6th Maryland held the first line, supported by the 122nd Ohio, 138th Pennsylvania, and the 126th Ohio.[6] The soldiers could hardly see 25 yards ahead in the foreboding wilderness, a second growth forest of scrub trees and dense underbrush that made the movement of organized lines virtually impossible. A veteran of the 126th Ohio recalled that the terrain entirely concealed the enemy from view. "Far, far in front stretched the blind, interminable forest," he wrote, "through which the eye vainly peered for an unseen foe."[7]

All day long, the high command of the Army of the Potomac had flailed about attempting to put together a coordinated attack against Lee's forces, failing time and again. As evening approached, Grant and Meade looked for one last opportunity. With Richard Ewell's Confederates continuing to frustrate frontal assaults of the 5th and 6th Corps, thoughts turned to locating the northern flank of Ewell's line in an effort to turn his strong entrenchments along the pike. The assignment fell to Seymour's men. After coming into position, Keifer and Horn both threw out a skirmish line to engage the enemy and ascertain their position and strength. As their soldiers sparred with unseen foes in the dense undergrowth, reports filtered in that Ewell was moving troops to reinforce Lee's southern flank. Assuming that the northern flank had been weakened, orders came down to push the assault against Ewell's lines.[8]

Truman Seymour had a difficult task on this day - to command soldiers whom he had barely met. Yet the sources indicate that Seymour did little to endear himself to his men. With orders to make a vigorous assault against the rebel flank, at about 6 p.m. Seymour directed Keifer to take command of the brigade's first line and lead the attack.[9]

Colonel Keifer led the 110th Ohio and 6th Maryland forward. The two regiments scrambled through the thickets and briars, pushing back Confederate skirmishers, until they came upon the main line of Ewell's defense. Keifer found the enemy "intrenched behind logs which had been hurriedly thrown together." Halting his advance, Keifer sought out Colonel Horn. The two regiments found themselves unsupported on both flanks. Keifer also found that, contrary to reports, Ewell's lines extended far beyond his own flank. He sent word to the rear of the impossibility of his task, but soon a courier arrived from Seymour with orders to attack at once. Believing that Seymour had not received his own message, Keifer did not immediately obey the order. But when a second courier arrived reiterating the message, the Ohio colonel had no choice. "It was impossible to succeed," Keifer would later report, but with no other options he ordered his line forward.[10]

The Ohioans and Marylanders advanced to within 150 yards of the Confederate earthworks at the top of the slope. A devastating fire poured into the regiments from the front and from both flanks, but they maintained the fire fight, believing that supporting troops might come up and strike the rebel flank. Lieutenant Colonel Otho Binkley of the 110th reported that "a rapid and destructive fire was kept up from both sides...until it became so dark that our aim had to be guided by the flash of the enemy's guns."[11]

Amidst the crashing discharges of musketry and the choking smoke, Keifer stood near the center of both regiments directing the affair. After about an hour a minie ball struck the Colonel's left forearm, passing through both bones, but he fought on with his men. Shortly there after, a major on horseback materialized out of the smoke. It was William S. McElwain of the 110th, reporting that the men of his regiment were falling fast and couldn't maintain the fight. Keifer shouted above the pandemonium to McElwain to tell his men that support was on its way. The major swung his horse around to return, but in that moment the horse fell dead. "The Major, lighting on his feet," Keifer later recalled, 
disappeared among the scrub pines. He was never seen again, nor his body found. He must have been killed, and his body consumed by the great conflagration which, feeding upon the dry timber and debris, swept the battlefield, licking up the precious blood and cremating the bodies of the martyred dead.[12]
Shortly after his encounter with Major McElwain, Keifer relinquished command to seek treatment. After several hours of an unequal contest, and multiple protests from officers at the front about a lack of support, Seymour finally issued orders for his troops to pull back in the darkness. Late that night, Keifer was born back on a stretcher to a field hospital. "I had seen something of war," he wrote, "but, for the first time, my lot was now cast with the dead, dying, and wounded."[13] A member of the 10th Vermont, of the division's first brigade, witnessed Keifer's arrival:
He came in hatless and pantsless. He had nothing on except a pair of heavy army shoes, a pair of indescribable colored socks, such as were issued by the Quartermaster, a shirt bloody from top to bottom, and a vest buttoned close around him. His right arm was terribly shattered, hanging at his side, while in his left hand he held his good sword. All this, with his long tangled hair--for he was a Nazarite, sworn not to cut his hair or beard until Richmond fell--gave him a most weird appearance. When or how he came no one knew; and when the surgeon kindly asked him if he would have his wound dressed, he replied, with an expression of mingled wrath and grief: "I should not care for myself if the rascals had not cut my poor men to pieces."[14]
As he was carried into a tent, Keifer noticed the large pile of legs and arms that flanked its entrance. "The surgeons," he wrote, "with gleaming, sometimes bloody, knives and instruments, were busy at their work." Surgeons Charles E. Cady of the 138th Pennsylvania and Theodore A. Helwig of the 87th Pennsylvania attended to Keifer, cutting to the fractured ends of his shattered forearm bones, dressing them with saw and knife, and setting them again. "The sensation produced by the anesthetic, in passing to and from unconsciousness," he wrote, "was exhilarating and delightful. For some hours, exhausted from loss of blood as I was, I fell into short dozes, accompanied with fanciful dreams." As an afterthought, Keifer added: "Not all have the same experience."[15]

Colonel Keifer's writings long after the war reflect the bitterness he still maintained for the folly of the assault order on the evening of May 5th. Both regiments suffered heavy losses. The 110th counted 113 casualties, while the 6th Maryland suffered 180.[16] Colonel Keifer's Battle of the Wilderness was over. From the field hospital on May 7th, the Colonel joined the immense wagon train of wounded traveling to Fredericksburg. There he was confined for ten days in the home of Sarah Ann French Alsop, before moving on to Washington and home. An infection in his wounded arm threatened Keifer's life for a time, but he would eventually recover and return to the army.[17]

For many other members of the 2nd brigade, the battle of the Wilderness was just beginning.


1. Joseph Warren Keifer, Slavery and Four Years of War: A Political History of Slavery in the United States Together with a Narrative of the Campaigns and Battles of the Civil War in which the Author Took Part: 1861-1865, Volume II (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1900), 78; Diary of Elias N. Hartzell, Elias N. Hartzell file, Adams County Historical Society.

2. Keifer, S&FYOW  Volume II, 250-255.

3. Ibid., 78. Edward Steere, The Wilderness Campaign: The Meeting of Grant and Lee (Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 1960), 120-122; OR Part I, 371.

4. OR XXXVI Part 2, 735.

5. OR XXXVI Part 1, 722.

6. OR XXXVI Part 1, 730.

7. J.H. Gilson, Concise History of the One Hundred and Twenty-sixth Regiment Ohio Volunteer Infantry (Salem Ohio: Walton, Steam Job and Label Printer, 1883), 32.

8. OR XXXVI Part 1, 728; Gordon Rhea, The Battle of the Wilderness: May 5-6, 1864 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1994), 243-245.

9. OR XXXVI Part 1, 731.

10. Ibid.

11. OR XXXVI Part 1, 741.

12. Keifer, S&FYOW Volume II, 84-85.

13. Ibid., 294.

14. E.M. Haynes, A History of the Tenth Regiment, Vermont Volunteers (Lewiston, ME: Journal Steam Press, 1870), 64-65.

15. Keifer, S&FYOW Volume II, 85-86.

16. OR XXXVI Part 1, 728.

17. Keifer, S&FYOW Volume II, 86.

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